Reflection: The innovation of Sister Jeanne Knoerle and the creation of WED – SMWC

Reflection: The innovation of Sister Jeanne Knoerle and the creation of WED - SMWC

By Dawn Tomaszewski, SP, ’74, general superior of the Sisters of Providence and SMWC trustee I am Sister Dawn Tomaszewski, ’74, the General Superior of the Sisters of Providence, and I was, in fact, a student at the time that Jeanne Knoerle, SP, ’49, the 12 th president of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College (SMWC), gathered the College community at a convocation in 1973 and made the announcement (the proclamation as it were) that SMWC would establish a distance learning program. I am not sure I truly understood how this Women’s External Degree Program (affectionately known as WED) was really going to work until I graduated a year later from The Woods in 1974 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and then joined the Sisters of Providence in 1975. The Sisters needed me to teach, so I quickly became a WED student myself and soon became certified to teach. WED made it possible for me to become a certified teacher without having to go back to school full-time to earn that certificate. It was this experience that helped me both understand and embrace the concept of WED. I realized the genius of Sister Jeanne and recognized the hard work and dedication of the people she gathered around her to bring this program to life. And anyone who was around me at the time would hear me complain that I hadn’t had to work nearly as hard in my “regular” undergraduate classes as I was now doing for my WED classes. Remember, there was no such thing as online in the 70s. As we Sisters of Providence like to say, Sister Jeanne read the “signs of the times”. She was so very good at doing that. She had led the College through a total self-study just before my arrival as a student there in 1970. And perhaps it was because of that process that it became obvious to her that the number of traditional students who were choosing to come to an all-women’s college were dwindling. Was there a new group of women, a new generation that could benefit from the kind of intellectual, cultural and spiritual values SMWC offered students? Jeanne made her way to another small liberal arts college, Goddard College in Vermont, accompanied by Sister William Eyke, who was the academic dean at the time. They would use the Goddard model to develop the distance education program with its emphasis on a flexible learning environment. SMWC became only the second school in the country to offer such an opportunity. And though the hope was that this would strengthen the College’s enrollment and grow its academic offerings, Sister Jeanne also had her eye on the mission, on the needs of women. So, they geared the program towards women who had started but not finished degrees because life got in the way. In other words, the program was geared toward giving women opportunities that might not otherwise be possible. Fifty years later, we can happily say that the program took off and served not only these women but so many others and eventually men and graduate students. Jeanne Knoerle’s good friend and colleague at the College, Sister Jean Fuqua told me recently that she thinks that WED did for the College then what athletics and the move to co-education are doing for this institution now. We are so blessed to have had the inspiration and innovation of leaders like Sister Jeanne Knoerle to continue to advance the mission of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College. Thank you, Jeanne! Happy anniversary everyone! Sister Dawn Tomaszewski, has been serving as the General Superior of the Sisters of Providence since 2016. She graduated from Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College in 1974 with a bachelor’s degree in communications, and also earned a master’s degree in journalism from the University of North Carolina. In addition, she has a master’s degree in theology from Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. Sister Dawn dedicates her life to love, mercy and justice to create a more just and hope-filled world through prayer, education, service and advocacy.